Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Nathaniel Hawthorne: King Arthur in Boston?

Nathaniel Hawthorne
"The Gray Champion"
in The Celestial Railroad and Other Stories

"The Gray Champion"

There was once a time when New England groaned under the actual pressure of heavier wrongs than those threatened ones which brought on the Revolution.  James II, the bigoted successor of Charles the Voluptuous, had annulled the charters of all the colonies, and sent a harsh and unprincipled soldier to take away our liberties and endanger our religion.

There is just a touch of irony in this opening paragraph of the story with respect to the loss of religious liberty.  The Puritans understood religious liberty to mean the freedom to practice their own brand of Christianity, which they certainly didn't extend to other brands  (see Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams who were banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony because of religious differences with the ruling Puritan clergy).

Because of the loss of the charter and the presence of mercenary troops, tensions were rising among the general populace.    The Governor and his councilors decided on a show of force to forestall  possible incidents of public unrest.

One afternoon in April, 1689, Sir Edmund Andros and his favorite councilors, being warm with wine, assembled the redcoats of the Governor's Guard, and made their appearance in the streets of Boston. The sun was near setting when the march commenced.

This, of course, drew a crowd.

There were the sober garb, the general severity of mien, the gloomy but undismayed expression, the scriptural forms of speech, and the confidence in Heaven's blessing on a righteous cause , which would have marked a band of the original Puritans, when threatened by some peril of the wilderness.  . . . Old soldiers of the Parliament were here, too, smiling grimly at the thought that their aged arms might strike another blow at the house of Stuart.   Here, also, were the veterans of King Philip's war, who had burned villages and slaughtered young and old, with pious fierceness, while the godly souls  throughout the land were helping them with prayer. . . .

"Satan will strike his master stoke presently," cried some, "because he knoweth that his time is short.  All the godly pastors are to be dragged to prison!  We shall see them, at a Smithfield fire in King Street!".  .  .

Hereupon the people of each parish gathered closer round their minister, who looked calmly upwards and assumed a more apostolic dignity, as well befitted a candidate for the highest honor of his profession, the crown of martyrdom.

With the Governor, his councilors, and the Governor's Guard at one end of the street and the crowd of godly and righteous Bostonians at the other, a bloody conflict seemed inevitable, until --

Suddenly, there was seen the figure of ancient man,  who seemed to have emerged from among the people, and was walking by himself along the center of the street, to confront the armed band.  He wore the old Puritan dress, a dark cloak and steeple-crowned hat, in the fashion of at least fifty years before, with a heavy sword upon his thigh, but a staff in his hand to assist the tremulous gait of age.

 I am here, Sir Governor, because the cry of an oppressed people hath disturbed me in my secret place, and beseeching this favor earnestly of the Lord, it was vouchsafed me to appear once again on earth, in the good old cause of His saints. . . .

This, to me, seems to be a variation on the legend of King Arthur, who, suffering from a mortal wound in his battle with his son/nephew? Mordred, was taken away in a small boat.   In some versions he had died, while others claimed he was still alive.  However, all agree that he went to the Isle of Avalon  whereupon he rests until the day that England needs him, and he will again come to its aid.  The words spoken by the Gray Champion could have come straight from many of the variations of the legend of King Arthur, or so it seems to me.

Of course, it's clear that the Gray Champion is not King Arthur.  I wonder why, though, Hawthorne thought it necessary to borrow a legend from the old country, rather than use an home-grown one.  Is this a commentary on or perhaps a recognition of the reality of the brevity of the English history in New England?

It seems a straightforward variation, but Hawthorne frequently has a hidden message in many of his tales.  Is there a touch of irony here--perhaps one variation of an intolerant Christianity trying to enforce its will upon another equally intolerant variation?


  1. in my ignorance, i read the Celestial Railroad compilation twice, but i just can't recall Grey Champion... i remember liking most of the stories, but they're gone now... i might get back to them some day if i can ever drag my way out of Revelation Space...
    interesting comparison between Arthur and Champion; i read King Arthur books to the saturation point when i was young, even tho i missed out on Tennyson and Malory; but i never would have spotted the connection with Hawthorne... original idea...

    1. Mudpuddle, It's the fourth story in the book. I just finished a Teaching Company series of lectures on King Arthur, twelve hours of lectures to be exact, so I'm probably sensitized now to any references to Arthur or the legends.

  2. I just finished a reread of The Scarlet Letter. Many of the issues touched on in the above story are also reflected in that book.

    I have not read The Grey Champion or anything from this collection. I should do soon. Based on your commentary, it does sounds as if the story references The King Arthur Legend.

    1. Brian--any one particular issue seems particularly important or significant?

      I doubt that I would have seen the resemblance to the Arthurian legend if his statement had been different. It was the reference to coming back once again to help his people.

  3. Fred, the story strikes me as a tale -- political parable -- about resorting to conservatism as a solution to contemporary problems. In other words, people look to lessons and exemplars from the past in order to deal with the issues confronting them in the here and now. Hawthorne's world was animated by tensions between what we would call conservative v. liberal politics.

    1. R.T.--I hadn't looked at it that way. Interesting idea--King Arthur and the Gray Champion as symbols of the old ways, the conservative solutions, what worked in the past, etc.

      Carrying the analogy a bit further, then it also suggests that the old ways are only effective as long as the crisis doesn't change. Later in the American revolution, it appears as though the old ways, the conservative solutions were ineffective for England, and King Arthur and the Gray Champion did not appear for either side.

  4. Reminds me of Twain's The War Prayer. There are differences, but still ...

    1. Shadow Flutter--I hadn't read that story before. Thanks for bringing it up. I can see why you would be reminded of it.

      Another Gray Champion, only one with a very different message.

      His sudden appearance is similar to that of the Gray Champion's.